This government has no plan and no answers to the education and skills crisis besetting this country. This latest budget does nothing to rectify the inadequacies in vocational education and training—inadequacies created exclusively by this government. The proposed Skills Package of $525 million in the budget has been picked over by Senate estimates and, not surprisingly, they found that only $55.4 million is actually new money. No wonder the business groups are starting to become restless.
It started in August with Innes Willox, CEO of the Australian Industry Group, pleading with the Prime Minister to fix the skills crisis. Mr Willox is right to be concerned because the pipeline of infrastructure work over the next few years is slated to be bigger than the mining boom of 2012 to 2015. On 8 August, The Australian quoted recent research by Ai Group, which found:
75 per cent of employers were having difficulty recruiting qualified or skilled workers to fill vacancies. The biggest shortages were among technicians and trades workers.
Further, the article says:
Apprenticeship and traineeships numbers have fallen from 446,000 in 2012 to 259,385 last year, which Mr Willox blamed on a number of policy changes, including the removal or reduction of many employer incentives.
No wonder that, of the 1,259 businesses who responded to the New South Wales business workshop skills survey, 55 per cent said they were experiencing a skills shortage. New South Wales business CEO Stephen Cartwright said in the Sydney Morning Herald on 26 August:
More must be done to train the next generation to ensure the economy has the requisite skills to sustain existing and future economic activity.
Doing what we’ve always done isn’t working—we have a ‘perfect storm’ of stubbornly high levels of youth unemployment, but businesses are crying out for staff.
But it’s not just the drop in commencement rates that is worrying. Recent data from the National Council of Vocational Education and Research reveals the completion rates for apprentices and trainees in all occupations has decreased to 56.7 per cent and to 54.5 per cent in trade occupations.
The coalition has had six years to improve the skills system but has failed to take action at every turn. Instead, they have taken $3 billion dollars out of the system and reduced commencements by over 150,000 since 2013. If one can’t believe the employers, then how about the CSIRO? In their June Australian national outlook 2019, CSIRO said:
Technological change, such as artificial intelligence, automation and advances in biotechnology are transforming existing industries and changing the skills required for high-quality jobs. Unless Australia can reverse its recent declines in educational performance, its future workforce could be poorly prepared for the jobs of tomorrow.
This is all the end result of cuts to school funding, a lack of focus on vocational pathways, closing TAFE campuses and allowing dodgy for-profit employers to gouge the system. Yet the minister, Senator Cash, boasted in a speech on 11 July: ‘Our agenda is ambitious.’ Ambitious for what? The elements of the budget package, even where they have merit, will hardly make a dent in the crisis we face. Ten new regional training hubs are important as a link between school and technical education, but 10 across Australia? That is just over one per state and territory.
The minister lauds the creation of 400 VET scholarships and the doubling of the Australian Apprentice Wage Subsidy trial to 3,200 places. But, Minister, what about the drop of 150,000 commencements in six years? When you step back and consider the massive cuts to this sector and the massive needs of industry over the next five years, these feeble initiatives neither prepare the damage done or address the challenges ahead. So, my question to the government is: what is the government doing to invest in schools and encourage students to undertake VET? We hear so many platitudes about the importance of technical and trade training, but the Commonwealth invests very little in creating the pathways of the future for young people.